A World Bank report launched today recommended immediate actions, including improving public health services and response mechanisms and improving air pollution data monitoring systems, to reduce air pollution impacts on health.
The report, “Breathing Heavy: New Evidence on Air Pollution and Health in Bangladesh”, assessed the impacts of outdoor air pollution on physical and mental health in Dhaka and Sylhet.
Exposure to high level of air pollution significantly raises the risks of breathing difficulties, cough, lower respiratory tract infections, as well as depression and other health conditions, said the report.
Children under five years, elderly, and people with comorbidities such as diabetes, heart or respiratory conditions, are most vulnerable.
It finds that the sites with major construction and persistent traffic in the Dhaka City have the highest level of air pollution.
At these sites, the fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which is considered most hazardous to health, is on average 150 percent above the WHO Air Quality Guidelines (AQG), which is equivalent to smoking about 1.7 cigarettes per day. The second highest concentration of PM2.5 levels is found near brick kilns in greater Dhaka, which is 136 percent above the WHO AQG – equivalent to smoking 1.6 cigarettes per day.
Incidence of lower respiratory tract infections was significantly higher among children living near major construction and traffic sites than elsewhere in the country, including near brick kilns. Sylhet division, which has the cleanest air in the country, still experiences average PM2.5 concentration levels 80 percent above WHO AQG. This is equivalent to smoking 1.2 cigarettes per day.
“Ambient air pollution puts everyone at risk, from a child to an elderly. In 2019, air pollution was the second biggest cause of deaths and disability in Bangladesh and costed about 3.9 to 4.4 percent of the country’s GDP,” said Dandan Chen, Acting World Bank Country Director for Bangladesh and Bhutan.
“Addressing air pollution is critical for the country’s sustainable and green growth and development. Through analytical work and new investments, the World Bank is helping Bangladesh reduce air pollution.”
Air pollution caused about 78,145–88,229 deaths in Bangladesh in 2019. While air pollution levels within the country vary significantly, the concentration of PM2.5 in all the regions is significantly above the threshold recommended by the WHO Air Quality Guidelines. Dhaka is the most polluted division while Sylhet is the least polluted.
From 2018 to 2021, Dhaka ranked as the second most polluted city in the world. The western regions (Khulna and Rajshahi) are more polluted than the eastern ones (Sylhet and Chattogram).
Air pollution also affects mental health. Depression is most reported in locations with major construction and persistent traffic.
The study finds that a one percent increase in exposure to PM2.5 above the WHO AQG is associated with a 20 percent higher probability of being depressed.
“Air pollution causes the climate to change, and climate change worsens the air quality. Over time, climate change and urbanization will further intensify air pollution,” said Wameq Azfar Raza, World Bank Health Specialist and the lead of the report.
Urgent actions to reduce air pollution will include improving the public health service platform to provide curative care and promoting preventive health care, said the report.
Community-level screening for persistent coughs and breathing difficulties for people living in air pollution hotspots will help the government address emerging health issues.
Close monitoring of air quality data and further research will help devise effective measures to deal with the health impacts of air pollution.